While organizing my notes for this month’s blog, I came across one of many online recipes for Tsoureki (‘tsoo-REH-kee’), a traditional Greek Easter bread with one or more red-dyed eggs-which symbolize the blood of Christ-imbedded in the dough before baking. I had seen recipes for this bread many times but now I was intrigued enough to look into the history of this bread. I gained a deeper appreciation for the contributions of the ancient Greeks to bread.
By the seventh century B.C., the Greeks had elevated the earlier practice of drying ground soaked grains on hot rocks through their development of both leavened and unleavened breads, particularly with the discovery of the magical properties of yeasts. Their sophisticated techniques began to influence the ancient world, as Greek bakers did not limit themselves to wheat flour but incorporated ground barley and other grains, rice, nuts and seeds. They added cheeses, suet, honey, milk, lard and oils in combinations that appealed to the Greek palate. Captive Greeks baked for their Roman owners while constantly being introduced to herbs, spices and flavors brought to Rome by fellow slaves from other cultures.
Among the exotic ingredients, that the Grecians adopted was mahleb or mahlepi (‘MAH-leh-pee’). Common to Turkey, Syria and surrounding regions, it is a spice derived from the dried and ground pits of sour cherries. The flavor is somewhat nutty, reminiscent of almond and cherry. Mahlepi is used primarily in breads and pastries; sometimes difficult to find but, due to a growing interest in this country, may be mail-ordered from spice suppliers or through Rice & Spice, located in Lodi at 1030 S. Hutchins St., Suite 1. It combines well with anise, cinnamon, cloves, black caraway or nutmeg. Using mahlepi here gives a mild, sweetly citrus-scented yeast bread a nice complexity. References list cardamom as a substitute and although the flavor is not the same, still tastes wonderful. Tiny amounts of almond and cherry essences can approximate the taste; however, authenticity is best. It’s worth the effort to locate this ancient spice. Who knows? We might be slightly ahead of the foodies on this one!
A note: an oven with a convection feature works best, as this bread bakes at a very low temperature and needs an even heat. An oven thermometer helps, as well. This recipe makes two loaves but in addition to making a delicious gift, serves an Easter brunch crowd and leftovers can be toasted or used to make excellent French toast. The red egg is a matter of choice; decorate in your own creative and festive way. The photo shows black sesame seeds (traditionally white) and sanding sugar in blue, yellow and pink. Try a powdered sugar glaze with a delicate pastel tint.
(Greek Easter Bread)
Yield: 2 loaves
4 Cups all-purpose flour, sprinkled into measuring cup and leveled
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk, warmed (105-115 degrees)
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 stick plus 1/3 cup butter
1 1/2 teaspoons each lemon and orange zest, grated
1 1/2 teaspoons Mahlepi or ground cardamom
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten (reserve white)
Reserved egg white
1 teaspoon cool water
Optional decorations (red-dyed hardboiled egg, sesame seeds, sliced almonds, sanding sugar, etc.)
Combine 3 1/2 cups of the flour with salt in a bowl and set aside.
In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm milk. Add remaining 1/2 cup of flour and 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar to yeast mixture, cover tightly and set aside until foamy (This may happen quickly; check frequently).
In a saucepan, melt the butter over very low heat. Stir in the 3/4 cup sugar, orange and lemon zests, and mahlepi or cardamom. Remove from heat and quickly stir in the beaten eggs. Cool slightly.
Add the yeast mixture to a large mixing bowl. Blend in the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Slowly incorporate the flour until the mixture forms a smooth but wet dough. Cover bowl and let rise in warm, draft-free place until nearly double in size — approximately two hours.
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface and punch down. Use additional flour as needed; dough will remain soft and loose. Separate the dough into two equal pieces and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Once rested, divide each half into three roughly equal pieces. Roll each piece evenly until about 12 inches long. Starting at the top, pinch the three ropes together and braid. Pinch together at the bottom and tuck ends in neatly. Place on parchment-lined baking sheet to raise again (1 1/2 - 2 hours in a warm place).
When dough has risen, preheat oven to 280 degrees and carefully brush surface of loaves with egg wash and decorate as desired. Oven times/temperatures vary but generally, bread is done when browned and a cake tester comes out clean when inserted into bread; 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on rack. Servings vary.
Lori Bowles lives in Lodi with her husband Jeff and is living the semi-retired life while staying current on food trends. She enjoys searching out local purveyors of the best that Lodi has to offer.
Contact Pam Bauserman at 209-369-7035 or firstname.lastname@example.org